September 2, 2002—Ground Zero Plus 355

There's A Rat In The Subway!!!

Cliff McKenzie
   Editor, New York City Combat Correspondent News

       GROUND ZERO, New York City, September 2--"Look, Mom, there's a rat in the subway."

       That was the story.   Our six-year-old grandson, Matt, spotted the rat--scooting here and there, it's long tail dragging on the soiled, scarred concrete.   Our daughter had her September 11th baby, Angus, nearly 10-weeks old, safely slung to her chest.   Sarah, her four-year-old daughter, pressed up against her leg.  

        Our daughter is nonplussed by "creatures of the city."  She noted the rat was near a woman and told the woman about the rat's presence.  The woman edged away.   The rat shot from one location to another, passing near a man standing near the platform.  The man caught the shadow of the rat out of the corner of his eye, let out a scream and his feet flailed as in a cartoon, running to the other side of the platform.
         The kids laughed.   Sarah, half-Irish, tugged at her mother's dress and pointed to her new brother, oblivious to all the subway commotion.  "Mommy, Angus just saw his first rat...his first subway rat, Mommy!"
          Fearlessness of city vermin seems to be a genetic gift, at least for Irish-born children in the year 2002.  They also aren't afraid of Terrorists.      

           I'm part Irish.  My grandfather was Scotch-Irish.   Perhaps I'm a quarter Irish, I'm not sure.  I never took to the four-leafed clover stuff.   I prefer the idea I'm Scottish even though I was adopted, and my given name was not McKenzie but Anderson.  My father was of Irish and Scandinavian descent.  My grandfather was a McPherron.  So in the doggerel genetic pool, I'm probably more Irish than anything.   My wife is of English and German descent.   Her mother, I have always believed, is a direct descendent of Hitler and Eva Braun.
       Labor Day brings memories of lots of things to lots of different people.   To my Irish son-in-law, it reminds him of his ancestors who came to New York as "subway slaves," human rats forced to work deep in the bowels of the city with picks and axes because they weren't skilled at much more.  His ancestors left  Ireland for glittering hopes of a "land of plenty" in America, only to find enslavement and prejudice. In those days the Irish were the "coolies" of labor, working the dirty jobs and treated as "low-life" minority labor.

      Beginning in the 1830s, the presence of the Irish in New York City changed in both size and

composition. The surge in immigration occurred as a result of the "Famine" or "Great Hunger" caused by the "blight," a fungus that devastated Ireland's potato harvests between 1845 and 1851. In New York City, a principal point of entry for emigrant ships, 52,946 Irish landed between June and December of 1847.  By 1860, twenty-five percent of New Yorkers were Irish-born.
       The reaction of native-born New Yorkers to their new Irish neighbors was often hostile. The Catholic Irish represented unwanted labor competition and a culture that was seen as foreign to American New Yorkers. The poverty, cultural habits, and Catholicism of the City's growing Irish population raised fears among native-born New Yorkers, prompting some to wage campaigns of bigotry, slander, and violence against the Irish.

Draft Riots of 1863

       Skilled immigrant laborers found work principally in the building trades and the garment industry. Irish men provided the labor, both skilled and unskilled, which built the City's nineteenth-century infrastructure. On public works projects such as the building of the Croton Aqueduct, which opened in 1842, the construction of Central Park, Brooklyn Bridge, and the later New Croton Aqueduct, placed in service in 1890, Irish workers toiled long hours under treacherous conditions for meager wages.
      The complexity of ethnic conflict is best illustrated by the Draft Riots of 1863 in which young workingmen, including many Irish, angry that they could not afford to buy a substitute or pay the fee that would exempt them from the first federal military draft, attacked people and institutions associated with the Republican party and the Civil War.      
         They set upon the City's African Americans, burning the Colored Orphan Asylum and lynching eleven people. The Draft Riots were finally quelled with the help of the City's Irish Catholic clergy, heavily Irish police force, and Union soldiers, many of whom were Irish, recalled from the fields of Gettysburg.

       New York City was the second in the United States to build a subway.  Boston was first.  The first line ran north from City Hall to 42nd street.   To build it, entire streets were torn up and the tunnels dug, then the street was put back in order.  The first section of the line opened in 1904.  It called to the rats--"a new place to live."
      Today, the Irish hold a place of honor in the legend of building New York City.   Each year, the St. Patrick's Day Parade closes 5th Avenue, and police, firemen, and politicians parade with their chests puffed, reminders that the sweat and toil of immigrants once treated as "scum of the earth," now command the city's muscle, its sinew

    Perhaps that's why our grandchildren weren't upset at seeing a subway rat, and that it was a glorious event in the eyes of our granddaughter who exclaimed jubilantly:  "Angus got to see his first rat, Mommy!  A subway rat!"
     Most kids in America might think a subway rat as an ugly, horrible creature.   But our lovely little Sarah almost saw it as an ally, a "city neighbor," a source of "oneness" with a world of concrete and tunnels, and a place called Ground Zero.

      Today, in the face of September 11, we treat those from the Middle East with suspicion.   We're just not sure what side of the fence they are on--at least some of us.   Our fleet of 11,000 cabs and 40,000 drivers zipping around the city is comprised mostly of immigrants with turbans and the olive skins of the Middle East.  Long past are the Irish cabbies, talking out of the corners of their mouths.
     But the rats live.

       When you walk down the sidewalks of New York City, you have a good chance of bumping into a giant, inflated vinyl rat sitting in front of a building.  It is a "labor rat."   It hisses out that the construction of the building is being done by non-union work.   Labor "rats" are those who work for less, today, primarily Russian or Eastern European labor.
     But to me Labor Day is not about a day off before the end of summer.
     Labor Day is about keeping a Vigilant Eye out for the Rats of Terrorism.
     I thought it interesting that our grand daughter wasn't afraid of the subway rat.   She had learned to "live with the vermin."
    This isn't to suggest the home she lives in has rats, or that it isn't clean.    It doesn't and is.   But rats and bugs and other "concrete city creatures" are part of the city life of any child.   They grow up walking down streets where garbage is put on the sidewalk, attracting "concrete creatures."  They learn not to be Terrorized by what most children in urban areas would find frightening.
      They even make it a big deal to share the "first subway rat" with their new baby brother.
      Big city children grow up learning how to deal with Terrorism.  Around them, sirens wail constantly.  People--giant people from their perspective--threaten them with girth and feet bustling down the sidewalks.  They learn to dodge and weave their way through life at an early age.   They learn to look both ways before crossing a street, always wary that a cab or car or bicycle might shoot out to breech a caution light.  
     They learn not to talk to strangers, or shake hands, or pet the head of one of thousands of pit bulls or any other dogs being walked by owners who use them as one might a .357 magnum strapped on their hips.   If some food falls on the ground they are taught to never to pick it up, for the germs of the city have latched themselves tightly to it from countless people from fathomless countries with limitless potential for disease.

      So what's a rat or two?
      Especially to Irish kids?
      Labor Day in the city is about Vigilance.   It's about the life one learns to protect himself or herself from all the arrows of city life, most of which point their tips at the unsuspecting, the unaware, the non-Vigilant, the Complacent.
      A city child learns quickly to replace Fear with Courage, Intimidation with Conviction, and Right Action for Complacency;  for if the city child doesn't, then the city will consume him or her.
      Vigilance takes work.   Labor Day is about working to overcome the obstacles that face us in life.   If we look back at how great America is, it rose to great heights on the backs of those who were brave enough to shoulder the pain and anguish of its hope.
     The Irish are only a small but important part of New York Labor Day history.   There are many other groups who provided resources to build the city, and who suffered the tremulous journey to acceptance and power.
     New York is rebuilding Ground Zero.  It will employ a variety of people from all cultures, a host of diverse people.   The labor that will rebuild the destruction will add to the city's history of people giving their sweat and skills to creating new monuments.
     And, when it is all done, the rats will be there.

     The rats and other vermin will live down in the foundations of all that was built.  They will be reminders to all who see them not to be afraid of their existence, to not scream or run or be Intimidated by them, but to look at them with fearlessness, and Courage and recognize them for what they are.
      Terrorism only wins when we scream at its presence.  If we are able to face it, and not let it frighten us, we will be safe from its horror.  We will build our Shields of Vigilance without Fear motivating us, and therefore make them strong and durable, rather than weak and flawed.
       One day, adults won't jump and scream when they see a rat in the presence of children.   Instead, they will shoo them away and be more concerned about the safety of a child than about their own security.    That will be on Vigilance Day, which always follows Labor Day.

Go To Sep 1--"Tomb Of The Unknown Sentinel Of Vigilance"

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